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Roadside Use of Native Plants

Integrating All The Management Tools

Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM)

Kirk Henderson, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls

Integrate: to form or blend into a whole.
– Webster

All roadside programs are integrated. Some roadside programs are more integrated than others. This has nothing to do with busing school children. This form of integration applies to the diversity of practices used to manage roadside vegetation. According to Webster's definition, a State or County roadside program consisting of blanket spraying, wall-to-wall mowing and monoculture seeding is technically an integrated program. It blends three practices to form a whole. These three practices, however do not rank very high on the sustainability chart. The program they form is more hole than whole. Fortunately many States and Counties have discovered a whole lot more can be done in highway rights-of-way (ROW).

Highway departments are discovering there are more plants with which to work, more tools to use, more interests to serve, more resources to protect, more principles to apply and more people to involve. As States attempt to realize the benefits of such multi- faceted management regions, they begin the process of developing truly integrated roadside vegetation management programs.

A primary goal of IRVM is reducing herbicide use in the ROW. People care about ground water protection. And IRVM gives policy-makers a real way of addressing these concerns. Saving money and beautifying the ROW are two more important goals of IRVM. With locally-adapted, naturally-beautiful native plants as the cornerstone of the program, IRVM is able to help achieve all three of these worthwhile goals.

Preventing weeds is key to reducing herbicide use. Since weeds are opportunistic plants that readily colonize disturbed areas, disturbance prevention is an important IRVM tool. Prevention means including the help of adjacent landowners in order to minimize erosion and chemicals from farming and residential development. In the process, landowners will better understand the relationship between their actions and the weeds that show up in the ROW.

Herbicide use is reduced by spraying smarter. That means improved chemicals applied at the proper time with trained applicators who know the difference between weeds and wildflowers. Before going after a particular weed, IRVM roadside managers consider alternatives to chemical weed control. These management practices include:

  1. evaluating each site to determine if weeds really present a problem,
  2. spot-mowing to prevent annual weed seed production,
  3. removing a disturbance and allowing nearby desirable species to reclaim the area,
  4. prescribed burning of prairie communities to promote healthy vegetation, and
  5. using biological controls as alternatives.

Besides controlling weeds, today's comprehensive roadside program must integrate a wide range of interests. Lots of people care what goes on in 'their' right-of-way. While many people are concerned only with controlling weeds and spending less money, others want to protect soil and water, beautify the surroundings, protect rare plants, or provide for wildlife. Diverse interests demand a flexible approach. The definition of IRVM developed for the National Roadside Vegetation Management Association states: "IRVM is a decision-making and quality management process for maintaining roadside vegetation that integrates the following:

  1. needs of local communities and highway users,
  2. knowledge of plant ecology (and natural processes),
  3. design, construction and maintenance considerations,
  4. government statutes and regulations, and
  5. technology

– with cultural, biological, mechanical and chemical pest control methods to economically manage roadsides for safety plus environmental and visual quality."

People make the program. Through local participation each City, County, and State develops its own IRVM program tailored to fit local needs. The best programs are developed with ongoing input from all levels of the State highway agency integrating administrative, technical and maintenance personnel. Partnerships beyond the highway department enlist support from a variety of specialists including people from other government agencies, private companies and volunteer organizations. Contributions such as these lead to good roadside management.

With roadsides occupying millions of acres, road departments are land managers on a large scale. A resource as large as our nation's rights-of-way must be managed for the most positive impact on the environment and the economy. A holistic approach like IRVM responsibly addresses the full range of roadside interests and gives the public the best program for their money. There is great fun to be had along the side of the road. People are driving by all the time. And they notice everything we do. Doing it right can be very rewarding!

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Questions and feedback should be directed to Deirdre Remley (deirdre.remley@dot.gov, 202-366-0524).

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